By Ian McConnell

Business Editor

A PROJECT is under way to develop and trial a distribution network using drones to transport essential medicines, blood, organs and other medical supplies throughout Scotland.

Rural areas of Scotland are highlighted as particular potential beneficiaries of such a network by Glasgow and Aberdeen airports owner AGS, which is leading the project consortium. Live drone flight trials will be part of the CAELUS (Care & Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland) project, which started on December 1, AGS noted.

The consortium, bringing together 14 organisations including the University of Strathclyde, has secured £1.5 million from the UK Industrial Strategy Future Flight Challenge Fund to demonstrate how autonomous drone technology can enhance access to essential medical supplies, particularly in rural parts of Scotland. The consortium also includes air traffic control operator NATS.

Asked whether there were any issues around security of transport of such cargo using drones, a spokesman for AGS Airports replied: “Security of drones and cargo is a priority consideration, especially considering the nature of the cargo. Our consortium partner DGP Intelsius are one of the global market leaders of sample transport and temperature-compliant packaging solutions. They bring expertise in transportation of medical goods, including vaccinations by drone, to the consortium.”

On the project’s geographical coverage, the spokesman said: “The project focuses geographically on Scotland covering all areas, remote, rural and urban, but aims to meet NHS objectives around equity of care in serving remote communities. The concept is scalable and there is no reason why the network if successful in Scotland could not be extended further afield.”

Derek Provan, chief executive of AGS, flagged potential for the use of drone technology to reduce waiting times for test results, while accelerating delivery of crucial medical supplies. He also highlighted potential for the project to pave the way for use of “drone-enabled logistics” in other sectors.

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AGS said that, as well as developing the ground infrastructure required to recharge the drones and the systems to control them while flying, a key aspect of the project would be the design of pathways to ensure the drones can “safely share airspace with civil aviation”.

It added: “The project will also ensure critical aspects such as public safety, security and noise levels are considered.”

AGS noted that a “digital blueprint” of the drone delivery network would then be created “with the potential to connect hospitals, pathology laboratories, distribution centres and GP surgeries across Scotland”. The project is scheduled to run until spring next year.

Mr Provan said: “This project has the potential to completely revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered in Scotland.”

The CAELUS consortium also includes ANRA Technologies UK, Schneider Electric (UK), Atkins, Avy – Drones for Good, The Drone Office, Connected Places Catapult, Trax International, uAvionix, Leonardo MW, and Dronamics.

Mr Provan said: “The organisations within this consortium are some of the most skilled and experienced in drone technology. The funding from UK Industrial Strategy will allow us to work together to overcome some of the challenges associated with scaling drone operations to deliver a transport network that is technically, socially and financially viable.”

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He added: “Although our focus is on healthcare, the CAELUS project could pave the way for the deployment of drone-enabled logistics in other sectors and has the potential to change the way airspace is used by manned and unmanned vehicles.”

Asked how AGS Airports’ leadership of the consortium had come about, its spokesman replied: “The concept was originally developed by Strathclyde University, with whom we have strong links. We are keen to understand our role as an airport in this third revolution of autonomous, sustainable flight and CAELUS provides an ideal opportunity for us to explore that whilst also fast-tracking a network that can provide direct benefits to [the] NHS at a time where it is more critical than ever.”

NHS Ayrshire & Arran and NHS West of Scotland Innovation Hub will work alongside the consortium on the project, AGS noted. Karen Bell, at NHS Ayrshire & Arran, said: “This is an opportunity to work with aviation colleagues to explore the innovative use of drone technology to address some of the potential challenges facing daily delivery of NHS services.”

University of Strathclyde principal Professor Sir Jim McDonald said: “We look forward to demonstrating the potential value of drone delivery of medical supplies for the public, NHS, the economy, social equality and for the aviation manufacturing industry in Scotland.”